In a film industry often criticized for exploiting a fear of Muslims, Mahershala Ali received a standing ovation as he achieved a historic feat 20 minutes into Sunday night’s Academy Awards ceremony, becoming the first Muslim actor to win an Oscar.
His supporting actor win for “Moonlight,” the story of a young black man coming to terms with his sexuality, drew praise from the Muslim American community on Twitter, and it could not have been more timely.
President Trump’s order banning immigrants from seven Muslim-majority nations resonated at the award ceremony, having prompted Iranian director Asghar Farhadi to opt out of attending. Farhadi’s film, “The Salesman,” won the Oscar for best foreign language film.
But in Ali’s acceptance speech, and in words spoken afterward, his reaction to his historic achievement was understated and subtle. He made no mention of his religion in his speech but thanked his wife — who had given birth to their daughter four days earlier and who shares his Muslim faith.
“It’s not about you, it’s about these characters,” he also said. “You are a servant. You’re in service to these stories and these characters.”
In an interview with the Los Angeles Times after the ceremony, however, he addressed the question of his spirituality and the significance of his win.
“Regardless of theology, or however you see life, or relate to worshiping God — as an artist, my job is to tell the truth and then try to connect with these characters and people as honestly and deeply as possible,” Ali told the Los Angeles Times, adding that spirituality can be a doorway to “more empathy for these people you have to advocate for.”
“I’m proud to own [being Muslim] and I embrace that. I just feel blessed to have had the opportunities that I have had.”
And in an Instagram post after the show, his message was just as simple, just the words: Blessed journey.
The Academy does not track every award winner’s religion, but a number of other known Muslim actors and movie makers have been previously nominated for Academy Awards. The late Omar Sharif was nominated for “Lawrence of Arabia” but didn’t win.
On Sunday night, Ali also became the first African American man in more than a decade to win an Oscar.
In an interview with the Radio Times, Ali spoke about his experiences being black and Muslim in the United States:
“If you convert to Islam after a couple of decades of being a black man in the U.S., the discrimination you receive as a Muslim doesn’t feel like a shock. I’ve been pulled over, asked where my gun is, asked if I’m a pimp, had my car pulled apart,” Ali said in the interview. “[Some] Muslims will feel like there’s this new discrimination that they hadn’t received before — but it’s not new for us.”